Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, July 19, 2007

New favorite museum, Des Moines Art Center

When you get to Iowa, and with any luck everyone will, go to the Des Moines Art Center. Wow. I kept seeing the signs in the airport for the Des Moines Art Center, which showed a fun statue (“Animal Pyramid” by Bruce Nauman) and I had a feeling it would be good. I had no idea. Thanks to a combination of inevitable Central Time Zone summer storms and inevitable equipment problems on the airplane, I got a free day in Des Moines and was able to check it out.

To start with the building(s). The foundation is a 1948 structure by Eliel Saarinen, which has Prairie style horizontal lines and an open layout. To this the museum added a wing by I.M. Pei during the years one hired I.M. Pei for such things (1968) and one by Richard Meier from the years when one hired him to do such things (1985). If they were in the market for a new wing a couple of years ago I’m sure they would’ve gotten Gehry, but I’m grateful we were spared that. Each wing has its merits, although taken together it feels a little like an architecture collection.

I’m going to try to write at length about one of the special exhibits later. The permanent collection is of consistently high quality, and really picks up in the 1960s going forward. There are strong older pieces like a couple of Picassos, a nice Klee, prints from various eras, and works by interesting less common people like the Russians Larianov, Goncharova, and Rozanova. But the collection doesn’t go back much farther in painting and sculpture. They don’t seem to have Old Masters, which is what you would expect—it’s hard to imagine Iowa had world class fortunes during the period when Old Masters were on the market.

The last half of the 20th Century, American and European artists, especially Germans, are well represented. A Rothko, a Gottlieb, Diebenkorns of the abstract and representational variety. Two major pieces by Sol LeWit—a set of 56 cubes that have the scale of a minor architectural site, and a massive painting covering a huge wall in the Pei wing. Several Agnes Martins.

For art of the last 30 years, there seems to be a good example of everything. A great Eva Hesse construction (four fiberglass-coated wire mesh forms with umbilical cord or intenstine-like latex covered coils coming out of them). A big strong Kiefer, with Holocaust-evoking train tracks. A Joseph Beuys blackboard for crying out loud. John Currin doing the 3 Graces meet Desperate Housewives—I hate to admit it, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a Currin painting in the flesh, and it does have an undeniable presence. Everything seems to get touched on—a Julian Schnabel plate painting from 1978. A little Chris Offili. Obviously I could go on and on.

So just file that away for your next trip to Iowa. Or if you’re driving across the country on I-80--get off the highway.

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